“You don’t need to walk me to all of my therapy appointments, you know,” Marah says to me on a bright and sunny Monday in late June as we walk up First Street toward the public market.
“I know. I want to,” I say, linking my arm through hers.
Here’s what I have learned in the two weeks she has lived with me: being responsible for a teenager is exhausting and terrifying. Every time she goes into the bathroom, I worry that she’s cutting herself. I look through the trash and count the Band-Aids in every box. I am afraid to let her out of my sight. I am constantly trying to do the right thing, but let’s face it, what I know about motherhood wouldn’t fill a Jell-O shot.
Now, in Dr. Bloom’s waiting room, I open up my laptop and stare at the blank blue screen. I have to get started on this thing, make some real progress. I have to.
I know how these things go. I’ve read a hundred memoirs in my life. They always begin in the same way; with the backstory. I need to set the stage, so to speak, to paint a picture of my life before I came into it. Introduce the players and the place.
And there it is. The thing that stops me this time, just as it has each time before: I can’t write my story without knowing my own history. And my mother’s.
I know almost nothing about her, and I know even less about my father. My history is this blank, yawning void. No wonder I can’t write anything.
I have to talk to my mother.
At the thought, I open my purse and find the small orange container. I am down to my last Xanax. I swallow it without water and then, slowly, I pick up my cell phone and call my business manager.
“Frank,” I say when he answers. “This is Tully. Is my mother still cashing her monthly checks?”
“I’m glad you called. I’ve left some messages. We need to talk about your finances—”
“Yeah, sure. But now I need to know about my mom. Is she still cashing her check?”
He tells me to hold, and then comes back onto the line. “Yes. Every month.”
“And where is she living these days?”
There is another pause. “She’s living in your house in Snohomish. Has been for a few years. We sent you notice. I think she moved in when your friend was sick.”
“My mom’s living in the house on Firefly Lane?” Did I know that, really?
“Yes. And now, can we talk about—”
I hang up. Before I can really process this information, work through it, Marah is coming out of Dr. Bloom’s office.
That’s when I notice the goth kid is beside me again. His black hair is streaked in magenta and green and safety pins hang from his earlobes. I see a glimpse of the script tattoo on his throat. I think it says madness, but there’s more I can’t see.
At Marah’s entrance, he stands. Smiles. I don’t like the way he looks at my goddaughter.
I get to my feet and edge around the coffee table, sweeping in protectively beside Marah. I take her arm in mine and lead her out of the office. When I look back from the door, gothie is watching us.
“Dr. Bloom thinks I should get a job,” Marah says as the door closes behind us.
“Yeah, sure,” I say, frowning. Really, all I can think about is my mother. “That’s a great idea.”
* * *
All afternoon, I pace in my apartment, trying to think clearly.
My mother is living in one of the two houses I inherited from my grandmother; the house I have never been able to sell because it is across the street from the Mularkeys. This means that if I go to talk to her, I have to go back to the place where Kate and I met, where my whole life changed on a starry night when I was fourteen years old.
And I have to either take Marah with me or leave her alone. Neither choice seems particularly appealing. I am charged with watching her like a hawk, but I don’t want her to see this meeting with my mother. Too often our reunions have been either humiliating or heartbreaking.
I hear my name and turn. I think, vaguely, that Marah has called me before, but I can’t be sure. “Yes, honey?” Do I look as distracted as I feel?
“I just heard from Ashley. A bunch of my high school friends are going to Luther Burbank beach park today for a picnic and waterskiing and stuff. Can I go?”
Relief comes in a sweet rush. It is the first time she has asked to spend time with her old friends. It is the sign I have been waiting for. She is returning to her old self; softening. I move toward her, smiling brightly. Maybe I can stop worrying so obsessively about her. “I think that’s a great idea. When will you be home?”
She pauses. “Uh. There’s this movie afterward. A nine o’clock show. Wall-E.”
“So, you’ll be home, by…”
That seems more than reasonable. And it gives me plenty of time. So why do I have a nagging sense that something is wrong? “And someone will walk you home?”
Marah laughs. “Of course.”
I am overreacting. There’s nothing to worry about. “Okay, then. I have a business thing to do, anyway, so I’ll be gone most of the day. Be safe.”
Marah surprises me by hugging me tightly. It is the best thank-you I’ve had in years, and it gives me the strength I need to do what I know needs to be done.
I am going to see my mother. For the first time in years—decades—I am going to ask her real questions, and I won’t leave until I have some answers.
* * *
Snohomish is one of those small western Washington communities that has changed with the times. Once a dairy farming community tucked in a verdant valley between the jagged peaks of the Cascade Mountain Range and the rushing silver water of the Snohomish and Pilchuck Rivers, it has blossomed into yet another of Seattle’s bedroom communities. Old, comfortable farmhouses have been torn down and replaced with big stone and wood homes that boast magnificent mountain views. Farms have been sliced and diced and trimmed down to lots that fan along new roads that lead to new schools. I imagine you rarely see girls on horseback in the summer anymore, riding in cutoff shorts on the sides of the road, their bare feet swinging, their hair glinting in the sunlight. Now there are new cars and new houses and young trees, planted sometimes in the very place where older ones had been uprooted. Weedless lawns stretch up to painted porches, and well-maintained hedges make for good neighbors.
But even with the new views, the old town still shines through in places. Every now and then an old farmhouse stands defiantly between subdivisions, its fenced acres thick with tall grass and grazing cattle.
And then there is Firefly Lane. On this small ribbon of asphalt, outside of town, not far from the banks of the Pilchuck River, change has come slowly, if at all.
Now, coming back to this place that has always meant home, I ease my foot off of the accelerator. My car responds immediately and slows down.
It is a beautiful summer day; the unreliable sun is playing hide-and-seek among the wafting clouds. On either side of the road, green pastures roll lazily down toward the river. Giant trees stand guard, their arms outstretched to provide shade for the cattle gathered beneath.
How long has it been since I was here? Four years? Five? It is a sad, serrated reminder that time can move too fast sometimes, gathering regrets along the way.
Without thinking, I turn into the Mularkey driveway, seeing the FOR SALE sign planted by the mailbox. In this economy, it is no surprise that they haven’t been able to sell the place. They are renting in Arizona now; when this house sells, they’ll buy something.
The house looks exactly as it always did—a pretty, well-tended white farmhouse with a wraparound porch overlooking two sloped green acres that are outlined by mossy split-rail cedar fences.
My tires crunch on gravel as I drive up to the yard and park.
I see Kate’s upstairs window, and in a blink I am fourteen again, standing here with my bike, throwing stones at her window.
I smile at the memory. The rebel and the rule-follower. That’s what we’d seemed like in the beginning. Kate had followed me anywhere—or so it had seemed to me then, through my girl’s eyes.
That night we’d ridden our bikes down Summer Hill in the darkness. Sailing. Flying. Arms outflung.
What I hadn’t known until too late was that I was following her, all those years ago. I am the one who can’t let go.
The drive from her childhood home to mine takes less than a minute, but to me it feels like a shift from one world to another.
My grandparents’ old rental house looks different than I remember. The side yard is torn up; there are mounds of landscape debris piled in the middle of dirt fields. Before, giant juniper bushes had shielded the rambler from view. Now someone has ripped out the shrubs but not replaced them with anything, leaving piles of dirt and roots mounded in front of the house.
I can only imagine what I will find inside. In the thirty-some years of my adulthood, I have seen my mother a handful of times, always—only—when I have gone in search of her. In the late eighties, when Johnny, Katie, and I were the three musketeers at KCPO, I stumbled across my mom living in a campground in Yelm, a follower of J. Z. Knight, the housewife who claimed to channel a thirty-thousand-year-old-spirit named Ramtha. In 2003, I’d taken a camera crew and gone in search of her again, thinking—naïvely—that enough time had passed and maybe a new beginning could be forged. I’d found her living in a run-down trailer, looking as bad as I’d ever seen her. Starry-eyed with hope, I’d taken her home with me.
She’d stolen my jewelry and run off into the night.
The last time I’d seen her, only a few years ago, she had been in the hospital. She’d been beaten up and left for dead. That time, she sneaked out while I slept in a chair at her bedside.
And yet here I am.
I park the car and get out. Holding my laptop like a shield, I pick my way across the torn-up landscaping, stepping over trowels and spades and empty seed packets. The front door is wooden and has a faint green furring of moss. Taking a breath, releasing it slowly, I knock.
There is no answer.
She is probably passed out on the floor somewhere, dead drunk. How many times had I come home from school to find her lying on the sofa, half on and half off, with a bong not far from her outstretched hand, snoring loudly enough to wake the dead?
I test the knob and find that the house is unlocked.
I open the door cautiously and go inside, calling out, “Hello,” as I go.
The interior is gloomy and dark. Most of the light switches I find don’t work. I feel my way into the living room and find a lamp and turn it on.
Someone has ripped up the shag carpeting and exposed the dirty black floorboards beneath. Gone is the seventies furniture. Instead, there is a single overstuffed chair positioned next to a garage-sale side table. In the corner a card table plays host to two folding chairs.
I almost leave. Deep inside, I know that nothing will come of this meeting, that once again I will get nothing but heartache and denial from my mother, but the truth is that I have never been able to walk away from her. Not in all our years together, not with all the times she’s abandoned or disappointed me. I have spent each of my forty-eight years aching in some small way for a love that has never been mine. At least now I know better than to expect something different. That is a help, of sorts.